Lieven's Blog

What's on my mind...

Democratic fundamentalists

Clipboard with Pencil_16x16Why is it that questioning the democracy is often a taboo? A while ago I was attending a conference in Brussels on the economic evolution in China. Apart from the distinguished speakers the conference was attended by Western (mostly Belgian) business people and Chinese officials. During the sessions there was a quite high degree of Western ethnocentrism. Western speakers were explaining how the Chinese economy would further develop, what problems lay ahead and how China was (and should be) dealing with the financial crisis, etc. There were no Chinese speakers on the program and non of the speakers referred to studies from Chinese economists or scientist when they were presenting their conclusions. To my regret, it was a pure Western perspective on the Chinese economy.

At the end of the day there was room for questions. I took my chance and asked the following question: ”Is it not due to the fact that China is not a democracy, that they can handle the financial crisis so well?”
Two rows in front of me sat a member of European Parliament. After I asked my question he stood up turned around and started yelling at me. With his head all red he shouted: “How is it possible that you can say such a thing, what do you want? A country with only one party were you have no freedom of speech or no freedom to vote...”. I (and most the rest of the audience) was quite surprised about this outburst. It didn’t make sense to argue since I obviously raised a topic that was to sensitive. One of the speakers of the conference tried to calm down the upset member of the European Parliament... but what struck me was that there wasn’t even room for debate about this.

At the reception after the conference the member of the European Parliament came to me to apologize for his outburst. I asked him why he was so fundamentalistic about democracy that even a debate about it’s principles wasn’t allowed. After that said he gave me the opportunity to express my arguments and we had a good and constructive conversation. Here I want to give two examples.

  • We need to further refine our European democracy in order to make it more effective. It seems that we have forgotten that centuries ago it was already known that democracy is not the best system when a society has to deal with a crisis. An interesting example is the work by Titus Livius (59 BC - AD 17) History of Rome. He points out that in times of crisis the Romans changed the way Rome was governed. Instead of upholding the democracy, more power was given to one or a few people (during a defined period of time) in order get fast and efficient decisions. So even “at the cradle of democracy” they knew about it’s limitations. Democracy was not dogmatically seen as the only possible way to govern. Instead they could ‘switch’ between different ways of government in accordance to the needs of the state.

    Another way of thinking could therefore be that there is a need to further refine our democratic principles so that it allows us to respond adequately to a crisis or a difficult situation. It’s not about black or white thinking, not about democracy or dictator ship, it’s about refining our democracy by developing the mechanism that the European governments can swiftly and effectively react when necessary.

    In Belgium for example we sometimes have major issues due to the fact that the status of regional laws and federal laws are at the same level. This leads to endless political discussions. Some years ago this resulted in a quarrel between regions about acceptable noise standards for airplanes crossing Brussels and other regions...and keeping hundreds of families for months awake at night because of noise nuisance. My family was one of them. Some democratic countries have solutions for this. In the US there is the primacy clause, in Germany (art. 31 of the constitution) states that federal law overrides state law (Bundesrecht bricht Landesrecht). Meaning that federal laws are above regional laws and that in case of contradiction federal laws prevail. Refining democracy is about finding and implementing these kind of rules to make sure that our democracy stays effective and in this way make sure that citizens keep having confidence in our democratic system.

    To deal with the crisis, Europe has 27 different plans (which not always match with one other), China has 1 plan for the whole country to face the crisis.

  • (2) We need to stop the ‘silting’ (het verzanden) of the democracy. No more deadlocks. In Antwerp (Belgium) it takes already more than 20 years for the government to take a decision about the way the ring around the city should be completed. In short, in order to keep track with the mobility issues of the biggest city of Flanders we need to improve our highway infrastructure. The options are to build a bridge or a tunnel. But because in a democracy “everyone” (individual citizens, activist groups and political parties, etc.) can have his/her opinion about it AND can interfere with the decision making process, some important decision are dragged forward for decades. Eventually this kind of dynamics result in a (local-) government that can often only take decision that come way to late (if they succeed to take any decision at all). Of course (without any doubt!) we need to uphold our democratic right to speak our minds whenever we need to. But democracy is misunderstood by some, for them it is the principle of (mis-)using the democratic rights for personal benefit. The case of the owner of a pub in Antwerp “het Pomphuis” who was able to block the whole thing because he didn’t agree to have a bridge above his pub, is an example of the silting of the system (and this is not the only example). With all due respect to the owner of the pub, but the democratic right to question a governmental decision, should be in the first place used for the benefit the community. Especially when it comes to taking measures of great importance to a state or region. We need to be able to channel the democratic decision making process in a way that in a period of maximum a few months all debates could be closed and final decisions can be made. A very innovative and dared initiative is the G1000 initiative. The successful writer, David Van Reybrouck brings together 1000 citizens to discuss important societal challenges. He launched this initiative because the current political parties are in a deadlock situation.That is why Belgian just won the world record as nation operating for the longest period of time ever without a government. The G1000 wants to give an alternative to discuss topics in a non political atmosphere and to propose solutions (see www.g1000.org). Let’s see how this runs, maybe this initiative will be become a blueprint for future initiatives to refine the democracy.

    By the way, China has build a few 1000 bridges in the last 10 years to the great benefit of it’s economy.

I believe that there is some truth in what the Dutch political scientist Siep Stuurman says: “Every empire will sooner or later collapse as a result of the fatal pathology that it has created”. Therefore we need to do everything necessary to reinvent our democracy so that our system stays healthy and is able to preserve the economic and social welfare of it’s people. If we don’t, then history has shown us that if democratic leadership fails, it will give rise to anti-democratic forces of the far-left and far-right ideologies. (1290 words)

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